Live Theory: An Interview with Tom McCarthy

“It might just be that the final measure of a writer is not so much what they achieve themselves as what they render possible for others.” This is the final sentence of ...

“It might just be that the final measure of a writer is not so much what they achieve themselves as what they render possible for others.” This is the final sentence of Tom McCarthy’s Typewriters, Bombs, Jellyfish, a new collection of essays recently published by the New York Review of Books imprint. While the sentence is specifically in reference to experimental novelist Kathy Acker, it also works as a summation of the totality of the book’s ideas. McCarthy’s essays—written between 2003 and 2017, either first presented as lectures or published in other collections, magazines, and exhibition catalogs—are structured around the types of figures and moments whose success is more clearly visible in the alternatives they open up. This is a space where James Joyce, David Lynch, Ed Ruscha, and MC Hammer can coexist and form connections with Mallarmé, Freud, and Deleuze. McCarthy finds the electrifying potential for the future of art and literature in the collision of these figures’ work.

In a phone conversation from London, McCarthy discussed the relationship between performance and the written word, the necessary bond between violence and literature, and what is so fascinating about jellyfish.

Craig Hubert (CH): What can the essay do that fiction cannot?


Tom McCarthy (TM): I don’t see that there’s a categorical difference between the novel and the essay, or between fiction and nonfiction. If you look at lots of the books I write about, like Tristram Shandy or Ulysses or Alex Trocchi, whole passages of those books are effectively in essayistic mode. They are kind of disquisitions about Locke, or Aristotle, or Thomas Aquinas. Or something like Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, 80 percent of that book is in the essayistic mode, but it’s a novel. So I think the borderlines between these categories are fluid.

But at the same time, I don’t know, there’s something about the essay as a format where you can work some stuff out formally about what are the frameworks in which literature works and which literature operates. I suppose that in the novel you’re using the same frameworks, but you’re just letting them allow something else to happen, whereas in an essay you’re bringing those frameworks to the fore and just stating them, or mapping them. I find that kind of exciting.


CH: In reading the essays in the book, they seem to allow you to perform what McKenzie Wark calls low theory, which he describes as the process of bringing theory into contact with more accessible ideas. Different modes of thinking are allowed to collide against one another in ways that might otherwise seem unnatural.


TM: In a novel like Remainder, it was totally infused with theory but it had to be completely invisible. If the hero had suddenly said, “Oh, this is like Lacan,” then the book is over. It’s finished; you don’t need to write it. But then in my last novel, Satin Island, it’s totally about theory. It’s about a guy who sells theory to companies and governments in the form of funky, avant-garde research. He’s sort of practicing low theory, pretty much doing what I’m doing in the book.


CH: Some of the essays in the book began as lectures, and you read a few of the new essays during a recent trip to New York. How do you view the essays in relationship to performance?


TM: The short piece on dodgem jockeys was actually first done as a radio piece, a monologue on the BBC, before it was framed as an essay. And it’s not even really an essay; it’s more like a Francis Ponge prose poem. That one and the Patty Hearst piece I’ve done recently; I’ve been cutting this final record and doing live performances with these sound artists and musicians in music venues. So it’s very much about a kind of performance. And I admire figures like William Burroughs, who did amazingly elaborate performances of his work, and in fact lots of his passages probably even work better as a live performance than they do on the page. And somebody like Kathy Acker, whom I’m old enough to have seen read, she was incredibly dynamic and a great reader.

Other pieces that are not in the collection were really more performances than lectures. Simon Critchley wrote this declaration on inauthenticity, which we delivered first in New York in the style of a presidential press conference, with bodyguards and everything. Then a journalist who wrote about it said it wasn’t them, it was actors—it really was us. So we decided, when the Tate Britain asked us to do it in London, we substituted actors, who of course did it much better than us.

It’s funny, [the essays] occupy this hybrid form between academic writing and theater. In Satin Island, there’s a whole chapter that’s a fantasy lecture, a 19th-century version of a TED Talk. I think these things are very dramatic, and something that shouldn’t be lost sight of.

It’s something that recently has fascinated me, this idea of tentacularity and networks and gelatinousness, plasma and matter.

CH: You mentioned the work you’re doing with sound artists and musicians, and I was curious of how you think of music in relation to your writing. You have not written much about music directly.


TM: I have an essay that’s not in the collection, it’s a bit longer and was published as a standalone e-book, which starts with a Kraftwerk song called “Antenna.” I spin out a theory of literature around that, from Kraftwerk to the figure of Orpheus. But I don’t know. I think about music. One of the essays in the book has a whole thing about MC Hammer and his sampling of Rick James’s “Super Freak.” Music is there a lot in the background. Even in Men in Space, there is the Velvet Underground playing in the background, and in Remainder there is Rachmaninoff. I was listening to Rachmaninoff while I wrote that, all of those loops. It’s always there on the periphery.


CH: The jellyfish appears in a number of the essays collected in the book. Can you elaborate on its meaning, or its meanings, as it appears in the essays here?


TM: When I was writing Satin Island I read quite a lot about squid and octopi and jellyfish. I really wanted to have a whole big strand going through the entire book. I was reading this giant 18th-century French naturalist study of jellyfish by Pierre Denys de Montfort that is crazy. It’s like science fiction: one minute he’s dissecting a squid and the next moment he’s describing how one came into his laboratory and attacked him, or recounting—as if it’s completely, factually true—about this octopus taking out a whole boat, that he witnessed it with his own eyes. It never really made it into the book, or it got reduced to just a few images of jellyfish floating through the sea. It’s something that recently has fascinated me, this idea of tentacularity and networks and gelatinousness, plasma and matter. Once I had jellyfish in my mind, when I was revisiting all these images by Freud about the pulsing protozoa, and Alex Trocchi’s idea of being plasma that’s just reacting to photosynthesis, the shock of impression. Then Kathy Acker, and then Donna Haraway, who published that brilliant essay in e-flux after the book was already written, where she talks about tentacularity and Octopi Wall Street. It jumped to the forefront, and seemed to be a strand going through the whole book in a fluid but present way.


CH: You return in the essays to this idea of something missing in different works that leave behind a mark or trace, whether it’s David Lynch’s uses of prosthetics or the oil droppings on the ground of Ed Ruscha’s Thirtyfour Parking Lots. The presence of what is not there.


TM: Literature is very much about indirection. It’s not about what’s there, it’s about what’s not there; it’s not about what’s being said, it’s about what’s not being said. This is something literature shares with psychoanalysis. For Freud, you don’t listen to what the patient’s saying, you’re listening to what they’re not saying, the absences moving in the gaps and the image-associations—again like a jellyfish—between the visible and the audible. I’m very taken with this idea of marks and traces of things. This is what Remainder is about: there has been some trauma and you don’t know what it is, but you have the stain, you have the mark. The whole book is almost like a Rorschach blot deciphering of that mark. I suppose the same with Satin Island, this massive oil spill that fascinates [the main character]. It’s ink and it’s writing. That’s what writing is: the stain left by the other thing that you’re never actually seeing.


The Murder of Theory

By Anna Kornbluh

CH: It’s about what’s missing, but also, it seems for you, about repetition. You see this in David Lynch, whom you write about in the book.


TM: I think especially with Lynch, when you get three or four films in and he’s got this dedicated audience, there are certain motifs he reprises again and again, like the fussing neon lamps buzzing in the dark, or prostheses, or the wheel chair. Those seem to be in every Lynch film. It’s almost like Giorgio Morandi painting the same ten bottles for 50 years, or J. G. Ballard writing the same book again and again. Or Andy Warhol. The repetition is itself the content, more than whatever the content is, and I love that. I think Lynch is a genius, and I’m excited and anxious about the new Twin Peaks series. I hope it won’t be like George Lucas going in and ruining Star Wars with those appalling sequels.


CH: The relationship between violence and literature is another idea you return to again and again in the book.


TM: I think literature is inextricable from violence, and this goes all the way back to the Greeks. The foundational act is always from horrific murder. So, in Oedipus it’s the murder of the father, which itself was brought on by the fact that Laius basically abducted and raped Chrysippus. It just goes back and back and back. In the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus, the whole of civic space is founded on the murder of the patriarch. The foundational thing is an act of terror or sacrifice. And then you get this staggered field of the event. So in the Greeks every murder is a retribution for the last one, which is a reaction to the last one. It goes on and on.

There is the brilliant image in William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! of an event-field being like ripples moving across a pool after a stone has been dropped. But you don’t see the stone being dropped. You just see the ripples. And then it’s even in the second pool, which is connected to the first pool by a canal. I think what Faulkner is proposing is this vision of literature as the field of the event, but the event is never graspable. It’s just some kind of ur-trauma, and what you’re negotiating is its event-field, which is this set of ripples that overlap, bounce, and get distorted. That’s memory, that’s narrative.


CH: Has collecting these essays changed the way you’re thinking about the fiction you’re currently working on?


TM: Each of these pieces was written in isolation. But then nothing is in isolation; so gathering them all together really does bring a whole bunch of stuff into alignment. That helps me think about what I’m doing next. I always use essays like this, as a way to think through or work through stuff I’m trying to grapple with in the fiction. When I have a blockage in the fiction, I do an essay and it seems to unlock or breach open some new avenue, so it has been useful. I’m trying to write the great time-and-motion novel at the moment, and I’m not getting far. I’m in the very early stages. But I think gathering these essays in this kind of configuration definitely helped. I’m just excited when other people read them and what type of responses or what type of things they might produce in other people’s work. That is always the exciting thing. You make art so that other artists will do something with it, and then you’ll do something with that. There’s this continual mosh pit, and that is the adventure. icon

Featured image: Jellyfish, 2013. Photograph by Yu-Chan Chen / Flickr